We’re finishing off 2020 with probably our largest read of the year – Tokoraz Isto’s Tohol, which is part of the 13-volume series Tangra. This book takes us way back into the past, when khans ruled the vast steppes and being a strong, resilient and noble warrior, so you can serve Tangra, the khan, and his tribe, was your sole life mission.
I will try to explain all the different terms mentioned in the book (and my review) to the best of my abilities because unless you are interested in the topic, most of these words are not used in everyday life.
Who is Tangra?
To address the elephant in this review, I first need to talk about Tangrа (or Tengri as he is most widely known) since this is also the name of the whole series. Tangra (Bulgarian: Тангра) is the supreme deity of the tengristic belief system, which involved shamanistic and animistic practices. He is the Sky God, who watched over many different nomadic groups, including early Bulgar tribes.
It was believed that when a person was born, a part of Tangra was being taken away and transformed into this new human being. As such, the person’s sole purpose in life was to honor Tangra, serve the khan (who was the embodiment of Tangra on Earth) and the people.
Given that people were parts of Tangra, the social hierarchy was similarly divided to represent different aspects of Tangra:
- the boila (боили) (noble warriors) – the raw physical power;
- the priests/advisors/oracles (колобри) – the will and inner conviction of the soul (orenda, Bulgarian: оренда);
- the tumir (тумир) (oral storytellers) – the memory;
- the khan – the embodiment of all of the above.
I think I have to explain the author’s name at this point. Tokoraz Isto (Токораз Исто) is a pseudonym and it’s not an actual Bulgarian name. As explained by the author himself, it is derived from:
ТОзи, КОйто РАЗказва ИСТОрии (Bulgarian)
(The one who tells stories/The storyteller)
The author has taken up the role of a modern-day tumir, who is spreading the knowledge of the orenda through his prolific writing. This is probably the first of many of the controversies I found in the book, because the tumir vehemently disagreed with written history. They believed in the true power of the spoken word as it was only when spoken, the narrative is perceived as it should be – no more, no less. This way the author could communicate the full and true account of the tale without it being distorted by any false understanding or interpretation of the reader.
It is questionable, like the main character points out, whether this method of storytelling was the best because listeners, too, can misinterpret a story. After all, in both cases you have a giver and receivers, regardless of how the narrative is communicated. Both sides can be at fault.
So, what is the book about? This is a coming of age tale about a boy named Tohol (Тохол), who was found in mysterious circumstances, and is equally fit to become either a warrior or a shaman. The story is based on a famous myth about a semi-legendary Bulgarian khan and his possible link to Attila the Hun. It also vaguely resembles the legend about Rome’s foundation.
Tohol is constantly struggling between the wishes of Bayar (Баяр), a high-ranking Bulgarian warrior, his grandfather’s hopes (of Tohol becoming shaman) and his own personal dreams, which change form as the main protagonist ages. He often undergoes brutal physical training, extreme fasting and shamanistic travels in order to get ready for any of the paths he chooses to follow. Despite his desire to become one of the greatest warriors, tasked with protecting the khan, he tries to appeasе the wishes of everyone who is actively raising him.
Another major plot line, which develops alongside Tohol’s growth as a person, is the imminent threat of a Hun invasion.
Musings and Controversies
This book definitely gives a lot of food for thought. Apart from the main character’s tale, Tohol explains what it meant to be a Bulgarian (warrior) at the time and how everything you did in your life as a Bulgarian was because of and of service to Tangra.
It vividly paints a picture of what it was like to grow up in the steppes and what tribe life looked like. Moreover, as part of his mission as a tumir, Tokoraz Isto has stated on a few occasions in the book’s notes that his dream is to revive tengrism in Bulgaria. However, there were a few things, which stopped me from fully enjoying the book.
Firstly, I think the author has taken upon himself not only to share the tengrist teachings in a fashion similar to many religious and vedic texts, but also to weave them into a captivating narrative about a legendary khan. Furthermore, the story is told from the viewpoint of a 12 year old, who often expresses child-like awe when talking about his mentors and their teachings, yet in some cases Tohol shows a remarkable intelligence, which is rarely found in someone so young.
This leads me to my next point – overexplanations and repetitions. Roughly a third of the book could have been omitted and it still would have had the wanted impact on the author’s readers. I understand that Isto wanted to re-examine tengrism through the eyes of each of Tohol’s mentors. But, he falls into the trap of repeating himself, sometimes within the same sentence, or repeating whole passages altogether.
There are even cases in which he explicitly states the meaning behind certain words and expressions in brackets. I’m not certain whether this is a case of him trying to relay the story exactly as it was, in the tumir tradition, but these types of overexplanations were quite unnecessary as it is not difficult to infer the meaning.
Another irksome issue was the obvious inconsistencies in some of the teachings. Since Vel covers some of them, I will discuss the main one, which stuck out the most to me. In essence, the teaching states that remarkable people, regardless of which path in life they follow, stand on the fringes of society and are usually considered hermits. This is because they live outside the social matrix.
Thus, to be spiritually enlightened, noble and remarkable in life, you need to break from any matrixes imposed by one’s family and society since birth. However, when discussing the heavenly mission of all Bulgars (to strive to be a particular type of person with very specific personal characteristics, and spread knowledge of the orenda) in its very nature means to fit into a particular mould.
Finally, since the book is still a work of fiction, one would want the characters to be fully fleshed out. Unfortunately, only the children characters have any character progress. They have positive and negative traits, they have feelings of happiness, sadness, regret, shame, jealousy, etc. Some grow out of their childish behaviour, others don’t.
In contrast, all of the grown-ups in the community are represented as the ideal version of the particular role they serve in society. Be it a warrior, a mother, a teacher or a shaman, all of the adult characters are two-dimensional and devoid of any character development, which makes it very hard to empathise with as a reader.
In sum, Tohol is a very ambitious start of a very large writing project, which attempts to encapsulate many different layers of storytelling, each having a different purpose. The book proves an interesting read, though it needs a few more edits to avoid unnecessary repetitions, bring out the essence of the tengristic teachings and have a greater impact on the reader. It’s 3.5/5 stars for me.
I got my mum to buy and send me the first book in the Tangra series, Tohol, months and months ago, and if any of you have seen the size of it, you’d know it’s a struggle to wrap up and post. My mum’s reaction was to ask if I was mad, after seeing all the books in the series displayed in the bookstore. I have a thing for series, as she knows only too well. But I’m still undecided if I have a thing about this series. I started reading Tohol in early May, and had to take some long breaks from it, each time feeling like having to force myself back to it. In contrast, when I got to the last third I could barely put the book down, so much so that when I finished it I wanted to pick up the next title immediately.
Tohol is a strange book. Tokoraz Isto has tried to do so much with it: on the surface, the book is a historically inspired novel, but on a slightly deeper layer we must mention the multitude of explanations of titles, practices, and words; a third and fourth layers are provided by the lengthy monologues which spell out how to behave like a true Bulgarian warrior, which further break up the plot. It feels like there are at least three separate books mashed into one, and I can understand why the author needed the explanations to clarify his story, and why he needed the story to bridge the (overly)long, (overly)winding, and (overly)removed musings he’s had on what he perceives the life of the nomadic Bulgarian tribes was a couple of hundred years AD.
The main storyline
The main protagonist is Tohol, a small boy found in the steppe who is raised by the tribe’s shaman, yearning to become a warrior. It is a classic coming of age story, one of finding one’s place in the world. Tohol’s role model is Bayar, the military commander of the tribe, who is an exceptional warrior in both hand to hand and mounted combat, archery, and most other weaponry. Bayar is the ideal warrior – he has nothing else in his life other than fighting, training youngsters, and perfecting the sacred martial art “Da”. He is happy with this, and seeks nothing more, indeed, Bayar is not the only character with a high rank without a family or a desire for one. The reasoning behind this was very curious to me, but requires a lengthy explanation, so I will refrain from pursuing this tangent further here.
It is through Bayar that the author divulges most of his musings on how the ideal warrior should conduct himself, what his aims and goals should be. It is easy to mix up this idealised warrior and think all others were like him – but this is simply impossible. He is an aspiration for everyone, but exceptionally rarely in practice, and the only proof I need to bring up here is that this perfect warrior does not drink. At all. Do try this at home this pandemic Christmas, I double dare you.
Through the juxtapositioning of Bayar’s teachings, and the shaman’s words, we learn a fair bit of the warrior and the shaman’s ways. Later in the book we encounter the other casts which make up the leaders of the nation – the storytellers, and the priests. Tohol spends time with the storytellers, who act as historians and aim to preserve the sanctity of myth and origin by not changing a word of any story, and I found this a peculiar clash of old fashioned and more modern stand points. We get only a passing glance at the head priest – one to whet the appetite for future books, perhaps.
Controversies in the book
There were a fair few inconsistencies or controversies in the book, but here I will mention the two I feel the strongest about.The first one is in regards to the place of women in the world which Tokoraz Isto builds. He claims on a couple of occasions that Bulgarian women had freedoms to make the Greeks jealous, yet provides close to zero evidence for this. We have a few passing statements from which we can conclude women can be shamans too, and that if Tohol – who has the potential for a shaman – wants to marry, this should be for a green-eyed woman, and if she doesn’t have green eyes, he shouldn’t bother marrying her at all (the point is not elaborated on further). We also know women can be warriors and are trained up to their 14th year so they can defend themselves, the girls separating from the boys after the age of 7 to train on their own – personally, I fail to see how this would set them up to succeed as soldiers if they did want to walk the warrior path.
There is one girl who makes somewhat of an entrance – Bayara, Tohol’s best friend’s sister, who serves as Tohol’s love interest and who aspires to be a female warrior of legend – so those must be a thing too, right? Beyond developing and nourishing Tohol’s character, she isn’t given much of a spotlight. Yes, this is a boy’s coming of age story according to the plot, but as already mentioned, the author aims to provide a system of conduct illustrated by the plot, so why skip women? Keeping this for another book, perhaps? If so, it is an artistic decision I vehemently disagree with.
The second point of controversy which I wanted to mention is the obviously nationalistic tone the book has – it lists a variety of technological developments which originated in the Bulgarian tribes, and goes to depict the tribes’ path through a variety of regions in Asia and Europe and the spread of knowledge to all the other tribes and peoples we’ve interacted with. On the other hand though, the author mentions how as the greatest warriors in the steppe, the Bulgarians did not raise cattle or plough fields, they simply took by force what they needed to survive. Now, this might have worked in the first century AD, but it hardly translates to modern day or aligns with the aim to spread knowledge and aid scientific advancement for all peoples. This is one example of the discrepancies between an ideal and its actual implementation which I simply could not reconcile in my mind.
It must be noted that this book comes at what I would perceive to be a low in the nationalistic reality of Bulgarians – in the face of overt governmental corruption Tokoraz Isto raises the ideal of the Bulgarian Khan, one who is entirely dedicated to his people. In Europe, Bulgaria ranks year after year in the lowest positions for innovations, standards and quality of life, and to these the author raises past achievements of the development of the high saddle, horse battle tactics, and even the sacred martial art “Da”. These definitely gave the Bulgarian tribes an edge, as they were groundbreaking and relevant for the times they were developed in, but how do they link with today’s reality? To this, the author hints at a mystical gathering of some individuals who would fulfil the role of storyteller/historian (presumably the author himself), commander and priest, which will provoke the coming of a worthy leader.
My analytical, modernly framed mind states this is not enough – if this book aspires to give morals to lead us into being a better people, if it aims to unite us under one banner and mission, it needs to provide more than a gripping story, an old code of conduct and a vague promise of a renaissance – it needs to look at both past and present objectively, without romanticising either, and bridge the gap between them. To me, this is the true point of storytellers and historians – to make the old lessons relevant and frame them for use in the future.
There are many other trains of thought I could pursue here, as this was certainly a book which left me opinionated and got me thinking of a wide variety of topics. I have said nothing on the writing style, or even mentioned Tangra, the high deity of the Bulgarian nomadic tribes, and with other points I have merely scratched the surface. Perhaps if I was to read other titles of the series I will sit down and analyse one of these in further detail, or at the very least I will get to find out what happens with Tohol in the historically inspired world created by Tokoraz Isto. But I’m not sure when or if I will pick up the next book, knowing what a commitment it will be and having had my fill of one-sided musings for some time yet.